Syrian rebels control nearly all villages on Israeli border Ehud Barak

Published: Updated:
Syrian rebels are in control of nearly all of the villages along the border with Israel, the Jewish state’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Wednesday, during a tour of the Golan Heights region with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Jerusalem Post reported Barak saying that the Syrian military is becoming less efficient, adding that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are closely monitoring “the painful crumbling of the Assad regime."”

He said IDF is ensuring that the Syrian violence will not spill over Israel and wide-scale preparations are made for any kind of development.

“It’s very difficult to estimate what will be in Syria in the future, and we need to be alert and ready here, like in other areas,” he said.

Syrian regime forces reportedly launched attacks into the Golan Heights in the early hours of Wednesday, shelling over Beer Ajam and other areas nearby, according to the SANA Revolution activist group.

In recent days, Israeli troops have twice fired across the disengagement line that was established in 1974, responding to apparently errant fire, aiming at their Syrian counterparts for the first time since the end of the 1973 war.

The upheaval is something of an anomaly for the strategic plateau, which Israel captured during the 1967 Six Day War, and annexed in 1981, in a move never recognized by the international community.

Last year, violence erupted on the disengagement line twice, when protesters from Syria sought to breach the line and enter the Israeli-occupied side of the plateau.

Israeli troops opened fire, killing four in May, and at least 10 in the second incident a month later in 2011.

But the area has been largely quiet for years. Some 20,000 Israeli settlers live in the verdant region, many farming or producing wine, alongside 18,000 Druze residents who remain of the original Syrian population of 150,000.

The latest incidents illustrate a clear change in the dynamic in the area, according to Itamar Rabinovich, a former ambassador to the United States who has represented Israel at peace talks with Syria.

"This is still minor," he told AFP news agency. "But the potential of it developing into something big and nasty is there.”

"Clearly, the Israeli government decision was to nip it in the bud and to respond strongly in order to send a clear message that it would not be tolerated."

Michael Eppel, a Middle East expert at Haifa University, said the violence appeared limited for now.

"The Syrian army is not in a position to do some big action; it's so busy elsewhere," he said. "But disorder, anarchy, this close to the border, is troublesome for Israel."

The army has so far said it believes the fire from Syria, including mortar shells and bullets, is accidental. But Rabinovich speculated that it could also represent the "local initiative" of a commander on the ground.

Whatever the impetus, Israeli officials have shown little appetite for escalation.

"The border has been quiet since the (1973) Yom Kippur war and we want it to stay that way," Israel President Shimon Peres said on Tuesday.

"None of us are keen on lighting fires or fanning the flames."

Continued Syrian fire, Rabinovich said, would force Israel to "walk a tightrope."

"They need to contain it, but to avoid it becoming a big drama or very serious," Eppel added. "They have to deter, okay, but not to make some additional crisis that will not serve Israel."

Whether or not the situation worsens, on-off peace talks about the return of the Golan are on deep freeze for now.

Up until mid-March 2011, when mass protests engulfed the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly involved in negotiations that would have seen Israel concede the Golan, despite its strategic importance.

"In the event of a war, it's the high ground... Being on the Golan Heights is a big advantage in military terms," Rabinovich said.

"Israel has a very important monitoring station on Mount Hermon and... the whole water regime here is fundamentally affected by what goes on in the Golan, he explained. That was a reference to the main water sources that feed the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee, which provide Israel with around 30 percent of its water.

Conceding the Golan would also be hard for Israelis psychologically, Rabinovich added.

"Israelis may lay a claim to the West Bank, but they don't go there, but Israelis do go to the Golan Heights, all the time," he said.

"But right now, it's not an issue," he added.

"The (Syrian) regime is doomed... so it's not a partner for negotiations, and nobody knows when the civil war will be over."